Coalition vs. minority

The next UK general election is just over a year away, and the three biggest (as of now) parties are clearly positioning themselves for the likelihood that there will be no party with a majority of seats.

In such a situation, there would be two basic options: a single-party minority government of either Labour or the Conservatives, or a coalition of one of the big parties and a smaller one, which in this case means the Liberal Democrats.* The usual pattern in the UK, and also Canada, has been the former: a minority government that serves until it either is defeated by the combined opposition, or calls an early election (which results in either its defeat or its becoming a majority government). Until 2010, that is, when Conservative leader David Cameron opted to bring in the LibDems as a formal governing partner.

Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, a large union with deep influence within the Labour Party, left no doubt as to where he stands. He said that, in the event Labour is the largest party but short of a majority, it should be “bold enough to form a minority government, set out its programme and dare MPs from the failed coalition parties to vote it down”.

That is, of course, the classic adversarial strategy expected in a fundamentally majoritarian system: treat the minority as an aberration, a temporary inconvenience that will be overcome as soon as swing voters see that the opposition is “obstructing” the largest party’s “right” to put its policies in place. It also is a majoritarian attitude in the sense of saying it is better to have absolute power for a while than to have shared power for a potentially longer time.

But what if minority situations are no longer an aberration? If voters do not trust either party with full power, McCluskey’s preferred strategy could be a dead end–ensuring frequent elections and alternating minorities. Or at least increased uncertainty about whether an early election would result in a majority. Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg, LibDem leader and Deputy PM, offers an alternative norm in a video interview. In it, he decries the “preposterous assertion” that each of the two big parties–including his current coalition partner, the Conservatives–feels it has a right to govern alone, even if it does not win a majority. He further calls the attitude of the big parties so “tribal” that they’d deprive the British people of the more “stable government” of a coalition.

Is Britain ready for this norm shift? Clegg’s message seems like the right one in light of ongoing trends in British politics–away from the near-certainty of single-party majorities. But Clegg may no longer be the right messenger for this alternative norm to the majoritarian, adversarial one.

Partly, the answer may come down to how the upcoming campaign shapes the voters’ verdict on how this first experience with coalition government has worked. A recent example of framing from the Labour side is offered by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor. He argues, essentially, that coalition government has failed because the smaller party has not been a an important enough player in the cabinet.

I look at what the Liberal Democrats have done the last two or three years – these guys have not restrained the Conservatives; they have in many ways amplified and encouraged the Conservatives in things that they’ve done.

None of us want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, partly because it’s hard to know what’s more unpopular at the moment – the Liberal Democrats or the idea of a coalition government.

Will the 2010-15 experience prove to have set back the development of a coalition-friendly norm of how British politics works, or will it prove to be just growing pains of a new model?

* This does not exhaust the options. For example, a minority coalition is also possible. This is what the mooted Labour-LibDem coalition after the last election would have been. These two parties did not have a majority combined, and would have needed support from the Green MP, Scottish Nationalists, a Northern Ireland party or two, etc. None of these smaller parties was, to my knowledge, proposed to obtain ministerial portfolios, so they would not have been partners in the cabinet coalition.

16 thoughts on “Coalition vs. minority

  1. Would the UK keep having elections until one party won a majority? What if they kept calling elections and just kept on losing seats? What would advance the cause electoral reform in the UK? A reverse plurality election?

  2. Westminster system parliaments cannot be dissolved without meeting and attempting to form a government. The multiple election option was proposed in previous Australian threads There are no examples of a fresh election being called before the house can meet. There is only 1 example of a premier tendering that advice, in New Brunswick, where it was rejected.

    It is even stranger to speculate about repeat elections until the major parties accept the outcome because Britain has gone beyond the Westminster conventions by enacting the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011.

    The House of Commons has a fixed 5 year term that can be shortened only by 2/3 vote or by the passage of a no confidence motion and failure to form a new government within 14 days.

      • While I advocate fixed term parliaments as a check on the executive the British act simply doesn’t take account of cases that other parliaments have addressed. In NSW, for example, the assembly can be dissolved immediately if it rejects supply. Constitutional laws really should not be enacted on very short notice by narrow legislative majorities.

      • “In NSW, for example, the assembly can be dissolved immediately if it rejects supply.”
        Is this really a deficiency in the British FTP Act? One would assume that, failing to secure supply, the government would resign, and parliament would be dissolved after two weeks if a new one is not formed.

  3. That’s a reasonable assumption and one would hope that a government operating under the FTPA would act that way, but it it is not something they are required to do by the PTPA or any other law. One immediately obvious possibility is a government that refuses to resign (and let’s face it ‘Hell, no, I won’t go!’ is not a completely unknown attitude among political leaders) and simply lets the money run out.

    There is then the horrendous prospect of a need for an election and no parliamentary vote to pay for the election. I’m not arguing the specific details, merely arguing the FTPA has serious gaps and that constitutional laws require a little more deliberation, notice and legislative support than the act received.

    • In the case of a ‘hell no, I won’t go’ situation, I would be amazed if a non-confidence motion would not be passed in response.

      • I would share your amazement, assuming the house were not prorogued before the motion of no confidence could be proposed or debated.

      • Of course, the prorogation did not happen in a normless vacuum, and the House eventually did meet. In the interim the Liberals had replaced their leader, who then signed a deal (regarding the submission of budget reports to parliament), implicitly accepting the prevailing norm that the largest minority gets a chance to govern alone.

  4. Just for the sake of comparison, even in the period 2004-2011 when minority governments were the norm, rather than an aberration in Canada, it was business as usual with the largest party forming government alone without even some kind of external confidence-and-supply agreement, let alone a coalition. In fact, the one attempt to form a coalition resulted in much teeth gnashing and garment rending (admittedly, it was a spectacularly badly executed). So even in the face of a relatively long period, including 3 elections, with no apparent end in sight to fractured parliaments, the norm favoring a single-party goverment did not change.

    The 2011 election somewhat unexpectedly produced a majority government, but it is not at all unlikely that a minority situation will return in 2015. However, the official line from all the parties is that no coalitions are planned or even contemplated. While this is undoubtedly the correct public stance given how soured the Canadian public is on the idea of coalitions, I would be surprised if it is totally ruled out, especially by the Liberals and the NDP, and especially in the completely plausible scenario in which the Tories are the largest single party, but the Liberals and NDP control a majority of seats.

    • I hesitate to propose Alan’s Law of Westminster system inertia but they do seem both remarkably resistant to institutional change, particularly electoral reform, and remarkably oblivious to practices in other Westminster systems, let alone the wider world.

      • Afterthought, it cannot for instance by an entire accident that upper houses appointed by the executive are exceedingly rare among parliaments as a whole and exceedingly common among national Westminster parliaments.

    • Regarding the Canadian experience, it is indeed fully consistent with the “norm” that a single party with the largest seat share forms the government alone, without any formal consultations with other parties (but lots of ad hoc dealing to ensure survival till it is ready to go back to the polls). For 2015, I would be very surprised if the norm were broken, unless the Liberals (or NDP) were the largest party by a decent margin (no idea how much is “decent”) and the other non-Tory party share was close behind or ahead of the Tories. In other words, I doubt the conditions will exist for norm-breaking. However, at times the polling has suggested an election outcome like the one I describe could occur–with the usual proviso of “of the election were held now”.

  5. Matthew, I’m confused why you think the scenario you describe would lead to a coalition. If the Liberals are the largest party, what is their incentive to form a coalition? In my view, the only combination in which we are likely to see a coalition (or a pact anyway, perhaps not a cabinet coalition) is where the Tories are the largest party, but Lib+NDP > Tories, especially (and perhaps only if) Lib+NDP = majority. In other words, a retread of the 1985 Ontario Liberal-NDP accord.

    To Alan’s comment, I do think that Westminster systems do learn from each other. It’s just that…it’s impossible to overstate how discredited coalitions are in Canada, in light of 2008.

    • Of all the scenarios in which a coalition might be formed, the least likely one is the second and third parties ganging up on the biggest (like the 2008 proposal). Assuming, that is, that it is not an option they have signaled as a possibility in the campaign.

      “If the Liberals are the largest party, what is their incentive to form a coalition?”

      If the NDP demands it, in a situation in which Liberals are a substantial number of seats short on their own, and the Liberals value stable government over then threat of an early election, which they don’t have great confidence of turning to their advantage.

      Lots of conditions. There are good reasons why coalitions are not common in Westminster systems.

  6. Readers may want to check out this week’s Economist warning British voters to prepare themselves for a bumpy ride. {we certainly are!] Its cover story is devoted to the fracturing of the British party system and the more detailed Briefing analyses the disfunctionality of the electoral system:
    and the electoral system which is at breaking point:

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